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Wary of Western sanctions, Turkey’s banks resist Russian customers

turkish banking regulation and supervison of agency (bbdk)
The BDDK banking regular said authorities and financial institutions are closely following the sanctions applied on Russia EPA-EFE/SEDAT SUNA

Newly arrived Russians in Turkey are struggling to make deposits and transfers at banks that are taking a careful and sceptical approach for fear of contravening Western sanctions on Moscow, according to several sources.

Private lenders especially are resisting some customer requests and running others through extra layers of compliance to ensure they are abiding by international and domestic law, four bankers and two Turkish officials told Reuters.

All of this is frustrating some Russians who have arrived in Turkey since Moscow invaded Ukraine more than three weeks ago, many with wads of cash in hand. Scores have left home either opposing the war or avoiding new restrictions in Russia, arriving mostly in Middle Eastern and Caucasus countries.

At least six Russians in Istanbul said it was difficult to do basic banking, in part due to Visa and Mastercard suspending operations for them as part of U.S. sanctions meant to punish President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.

“I managed to bring dollars from Moscow and trade them here. But I don’t have a card yet,” said Filipp Chekhunov, a Russian who works in animation and arrived in Istanbul in recent weeks.

Seeking workarounds to pay for things like accommodation, many Russians have sought to open accounts and deposit funds at local banks, given Turkey has good ties with Moscow and opposes the sanctions imposed by many of its NATO allies.

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But even though they technically face no more hurdles than other foreigners, visits to bank branches have not been easy for middle-class Russians.

“Especially the private banks are very careful on new Russian deposits and are afraid of sanctions,” said a senior banker who requested anonymity, adding the industry’s “know your customer” standard of verifying client identity is crucial.

“The problem is not opening an account but rather how will the money come and what will happen if any sanctions come,” the person said. “Banks are very careful in terms of new accounts.”

The BDDK banking regular said authorities and financial institutions are closely following the sanctions applied on Russia. But “our organisation does not have any instructions to limit citizens of any country that is not in the scope of sanctions decisions,” it told Reuters.

It is unclear how many Russians have arrived in Turkey since the invasion began. 

Their inability to use Visa and Mastercard abroad has spurred demand for the home-grown Mir card payment system, which works in Turkey, Armenia, Vietnam and some other countries.

Many Russians in Istanbul have been observed paying hotel and restaurant bills with Turkish lira, which is cheap after sliding more than any other emerging market currency last year.

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